Hollywood Jews and Hitler – Did they collaborate?

Nothing like a good Jewish film controversy.  I spent years researching my PhD thesis about one – the reception of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  And what I discovered that there were a whole lot of others.  We do feel passionately about film – what’s on screen can stir our emotions in ways that few other things can.

Well, the latest Jewish film controversy is not a movie at all, but a book entitled Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand.  In it, there’s a “game changer” to our current ideas of Hollywood history.  As Alexander C. Kafka (love that last name!), covering the controversy in The Chronicle of Higher Education, describes:

Urwand unearthed evidence that suggests the studios were not merely self-censoring in an effort to keep their shareholders, audiences, and industry and government monitors happy. Rather, he says, the studios began working in detailed coordination with Nazi officials, putting profits above principles.

The Collaboration Urwand book cover

And look who has weighed in to this controversy:

–          David Denby, noted film critic for The New Yorker, has published a much-commented upon blog post entitled “How could Harvard have published Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration?”, which followed his initial review of the book.

–          The Atlantic has covered it.

–          The New York Times has covered it a couple of times, both in Arts and in Books.

–          Particularly trenchant – and credible – criticism of the Collaboration book has come from Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty, who authored a book covering a roughly similar topic – Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939.  In the Hollywood Reporter, Doherty writes that Urwand’s book is “slanderous and ahistorical”.

–          Vanity Fair has covered the story.

–          Here in Australia, The Australian (Rosemary Neill) has covered it, calling it “the out there book of the year”.

And that’s just a sample.  Not bad for an academic book.

The allegations of Hollywood moguls cozying up to the Nazis are not new.  In fact (and I have lost the exact reference here), apparently Germany was the second largest film consumption market in the world (after the USA) in the 1930s, so it is not that surprising that they tried some sort of appeasement.  But Urwand’s findings go way beyond the earlier known information about Hollywood and the Nazis, using a deliberately distasteful word – “collaboration” – with all of its connotations of how various people worked closely with the Nazis to assist their crimes against humanity.  So you can see why some people are, as they say here in Australia, “getting their knickers in a knot” about this.

There are a few lessons in this.  The first is that – as I said in my Macquarie University graduation address in April 2012, “history matters”.  It matters because we still care about it.  Some of us care about the truth, others about interpretations of the truth, but whatever it is.  As Alexander Kafka writes, “At stake: the moral culpability of Jewish studio heads during cinema’s golden age.”  This is a pretty big question, so it’s not surprising that so many people have weighed in.  Yes, at stake is nothing less than a lot of powerful myths (stories? narratives?) about the basic goodness of Hollywood, American film, the American movie moguls – and the Jews.

This is how Urwand describes the rationale for the use of the word “collaboration”:

Throughout the 1930s, the term “collaboration” was used repeatedly to describe dealings that took place in Hollywood. Even studio heads adopted the term. An executive at RKO promised that whenever he made a film involving Germany, he would work “in close collaboration” with the local consul general. A Fox executive said the same. Even United Artists offered “the closest collaboration” if the German government did not punish the studio for the controversial 1930 air combat movie Hell’s Angels. According to the Foreign Office, “Every time that this collaboration was achieved, the parties involved found it to be both helpful and pleasant.”

I suspect that Urwand was naive in his choice of words, particularly given the meaning that “collaboration” took on following the Nazi downfall.  Technically he may be correct, but the criticism of this term seem fair.

For those of us resident in Australia, what’s especially fascinating about this controversy are the local connections:  Urwand was born in Sydney in 1977 and attended the University of Sydney, where he won a prize for his undergraduate history thesis about Steven Spielberg and the film Schindler’s List.  Both of his parents were refugee migrants to Australia:  Urwand’s father was forced to leave Cairo in 1956 (presumably because of the 1956 war with Israel), the same year that his mother left Budapest (presumably because of the Hungarian uprising).  He worked for Fox Studios Australia before moving to the USA to study at the University of Chicago and then the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his PhD in history.  The book creating all of this fuss is based on his PhD thesis.

The fact that Urwand is Jewish (and the son of migrants/refugees from Egypt and Hungary) is an important part of the narrative, because if he was not, people could accuse him of antisemitism.  But it’s hard to accuse a Jew, short of saying somehow that he is “self-hating”.  But that’s hard to prove – and I am not suggesting it in any way.  By the way, and I don’t mean to be petty here, for those who notice these things, Urwand does not seem to be particularly religious.  The interview he had with Kafka (noted above), mentions that he had a “gazpacho and lobster salad”.  Lobster (a form of shellfish), as most Jews can tell you, is not kosher.  You have to be pretty assimilated to eat it; eating lobster feels like a much bigger break with Jewish tradition than occasionally mixing milk and meat (also not kosher).

And one of Urwand’s most vociferous critics is a woman named Alicia Mayer, whose website “Hollywood Essays” notes that she is a grand-niece of Hollywood film mogul Louis B. Mayer, and that she lives in Sydney, working as “book editor in the arcane area of corporate governance”.  She has written a passionate “rebuttal” to Urwand’s book that begins, “I need your help. Imagine for a moment that your family has been accused of collaborating with Hitler and the Nazis.”

Hollywood Essays book cover

Interesting in knowing more?  You can read an extract from the book in The Hollywood Reporter, from an issue that made its cover.

This is a story that won’t go away.  More updates to come.

Hollywood Reporter issue cover

Update on 4 December 2013:

Laura Rosenzweig, a lecturer in Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, has just published an interesting article (“Spy vs Spy”, Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2014) which acts as another coda to this discussion.  She examines archival evidence that the studio moguls funded a spy ring that infiltrated Nazi groups in Los Angeles, feeding their findings to a Congressional committee and to prosecutors.  More evidence to counter the Urwand thesis.  This article has been drawn from her PhD thesis (University of California, Santa Cruz) that she is turning into a book – entitled “Hollywood’s Spies: Jewish Infiltration of Nazi and Pro-Nazi Groups in Los Angeles, 1933–1941”.

Update on 22 June 2015:

For those wishing to have a comprehensive overview of this controversy, Alicia Mayer has compiled an “Updated Rebuttal List”, which includes links to 36 additional articles and stories (the latest is July 2014).  She has a link to an article by Hector Tobar in the Los Angeles Times (December 31, 2013), which lists this controversy as one of the “5 memorable literary scandals and contretemps of 2013”.

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